The BlackBerry in your junk drawer is now a collectors' item: TCL says no more new keyboard-clad phones

End of an era in mobe design

The humble BlackBerry (by TCL™) is dead. At least in its current incarnation.

TCL Communication – which inked a licensing deal with the BlackBerry brand in December 2016 – today announced it would cease developing new keyboard-clad phones, effectively marking the end of an era in smartphone design.

"As of August 31, 2020, TCL Communication will no longer be selling any BlackBerry-branded mobile devices," the company wrote in a tweet. "TCL Communication has no further rights to design, manufacture or sell any new BlackBerry mobile device, however TCL Communication will continue to provide support for the existing portfolio of mobile devices including customer service and warranty service until August 31, 2022 – or as far as required by local laws where the mobile device was purchased."

During its tenure as licensor of the BlackBerry brand, TCL released several phones – including three with dedicated keyboards, namely the KeyONE, the Key2, and the Key2 LE. Although these handsets were well received by the media and business users, they nonetheless remained a niche element in the broader smartphone industry, which at this point had pivoted entirely towards full-touchscreen devices.

According to IDC analyst Francisco Jeronimo, TCL sold 850,000 BlackBerry-branded devices during the whole of 2017. That's a fraction of sales registered by Apple in Q4 2017, with over 73 million iPhones plucked from shelves during the three-month period, per Gartner.

TCL wasn't particularly bothered by that – it knew that it was releasing a niche device with a somewhat anachronistic design, which would only cater to a small subset of the market. Still, with sales so low, it's hardly surprising the firm couldn't continue to maintain its experiment in the long term.

And that's a shame, because the KeyOne and Key2 phones were beautifully built, well-crafted devices. TCL had managed to replicate the satisfying feel of the original Bold and Curve phones, even turning the keyboard into a tactile gesture system, as seen on the novel BlackBerry Passport in 2014. From using them, you could tell that they weren't merely half-arsed nods to nostalgia, but lovingly designed productivity tools.

TCL hasn't shed light on why it's ceasing production of BlackBerry phones. We asked, but were met with a firm "no comment".

One can only speculate whether sales weren't strong enough for TCL to continue throwing resources in its direction, or whether BlackBerry – which now exists primarily as a communications and security vendor – pulled the plug.

It's worth noting that TCL has emerged as a brand worth watching in its own right. For the past few years, it has lobbed TVs that carry its own marque. And this year, at CES, it announced a range of new TCL-branded mobes, including a 5G handset that retails under $600. One can reasonably question the wisdom in continuing to make licensed phones when you're trying to establish your own brand in the crowded consumer tech space. Either way, it's a sad day, particularly for those among us who used a BlackBerry as their first phone. I include myself in that group.

I graduated from feature phones to the Bold 9700 when I left for uni. And while fellow younglings were using BBM to organise devastating riots in the heart of London, I was getting push notifications whenever one of my lecturers emailed me, and sharing my PIN with girls I met on nights out to the local dive club, where you could get three trebles for a fiver.

It was a different, arguably more exciting, time. And a big part of that was the clunky, slightly dorky BlackBerry. And the trebles, of course. ®

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